16.08.12, Alwishah and Hayes, eds., Aristotle and the Arabic Tradition

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Anthony Minnema

The Medieval Review 16.08.12

Alwishah, Ahmed, and Josh Hayes, eds. Aristotle and the Arabic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. x, 266. ISBN: 9781107101739 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anthony Minnema
Valparaiso University

This volume takes up the daunting task of the reception of Aristotle's corpus within the Arabic intellectual tradition. It consists of a dozen chapters that are divided according to the curriculum that Aristotle's tradition promoted, beginning with logic and ending with politics. While each chapter focuses on a branch of Aristotle's corpus, what unites the project is the emphasis on how the Arabic transmission and use of Aristotle's thought was neither uniform nor systematic, thus making the Arabic tradition of Aristotle more than simply a placeholder or agent of preservation between the classical and medieval periods. Many of Aristotle's works were subject to a host of competing hermeneutics, including contending Greek and Syriac translations, Neoplatonic influences, monotheistic appropriations, and waves of interpretation by schools and scholars whose authority waxed and waned according to time and place. These factors created a uniquely "Arabic" Aristotelian tradition that deserves to be studied on its own as well as in light of its subsequent translation into and influence on the Latin world.

The volume opens with Christina D'Ancona's survey of the translations of Aristotle, which does much to advance the general thesis of the diversity within the reception of Peripatetic philosophy. Here she deftly describes the groups and contexts responsible for bringing Aristotle into the Arabic milieu and subsequently the Latin world. While Arabic scholars understood Aristotle's corpus to be a systematic whole, the two-hundred-year translation movement was far from organized, but rather a series of fits and starts, produced by a combination of personal initiative and imperial patronage. The first two substantive chapters by Paul Thom and Riccardo Strobino deal with the taxonomy of knowledge and the treatment of the Organon. Arabic philosophers differed with Aristotle and especially later Peripatetic commentators on the deduction of categories and the organization of the sciences, yet they believed themselves to full partners of his tradition despite their reformulations, improvements, and deviations.

A second group of chapters by Uwe Vagelpohl and Frédérique Woerther focuses on the Rhetoric and Poetics. While the works were available in Arabic, they were imperfect in their translations and lacked immediate application. Thus, scholars expended considerable effort to make them useful in the Arabic world. They were also not as popular as Aristotle's other works and were not often the primary subject of research. They were discussed instead in commentaries on other subjects, almost as an extension of the Organon. One exception is al-Farabi and his Didascalia, which is unique for its emphasis on the political application of the Rhetoric. Al-Farabi adapted the Rhetoric's arguments to suit an Islamic milieu, again demonstrating Arabic philosophers' familiarity with Aristotle's system, but also their ability to alter and amend his works for their own purposes and cultural context.

The third group of chapters addresses Aristotle's natural works. Paul Lettinck's contribution summarizes the translation and interpretation of the Physics and Meteorology. He describes the Arabic philosophers' contribution to the Aristotelian concept of motion, particularly the transition of conceiving of motion as actualities of perfection and Avicenna's reading of meteorological phenomena. Andreas Lammer indicates that Arabic philosophers' understanding of Aristotle's definition of nature was mediated by his Greek Neoplatonic continuators who were also translated into Arabic. The Neoplatonic reading of the Physics persisted even after better translations and resources were available because of its utility against the arguments of the mutakallimun. Avicenna's al-Shifa represents a criticism of the Neoplatonic reading and a return to a Peripatetic understanding of nature as an intrinsic trait rather than an external power or governing entity. Ahmed Alwishah looks at how Avicenna's psychology differs from Aristotle's concepts of self-knowledge. While Aristotle applies self-awareness to the divine intellect, Avicenna attributes this quality to the human soul, both as a way of connecting the divine intellect to the human intellect as well as a way of explaining individuation between souls. Yehuda Halper continues the conversation into Averroes' discussion of sensation and intellection. Though Aristotle does not make a distinction between the concepts, Averroes elaborates a concept of intentionality to differentiate them. Averroes had a difficult task in developing this distinction since translators rendered several Greek terms for meaning in Aristotle's works as "ma'na," which becomes "intention" in Averroes' arguments. His development of the concept transcends anything in Aristotle and helps Averroes to explain hylic intellect, agent intellect, and how human beings perceive the natural world.

The final set of chapters treats metaphysics, ethics and politics. Calvin Normore contributes a survey of Aristotle's metaphysics in the Arabic traditions by briefly examining three cosmological themes: causation and responsibility, creation, and the nature of God and existence. Josh Hayes shifts the focus to politics and the reception of the Nicomachean Ethics by Arabic philosophers. While al-Kindi only mentions the work's existence and importance, al-Farabi likely had access to the work given the similar arguments in his works, particularly on Aristotle's and Plato's differing discussions of habits and political regimes. Averroes' commentary on the work shows Platonic influences in the discussion of theoretical virtues, which reveals the influence of Porphyry and al-Farabi in the Arabic discussion of ethics. Claudia Baracchi addresses the Arabic discussion of politics and the ordering of society toward happiness. Like Aristotle, al-Farabi sees politics as the culmination of many philosophical disciplines and argues in a Platonic fashion that unity and harmony are to be society's ends. He comes to an even more enigmatic conclusion when he merges political and spiritual authority in the figure of the imam, who is both useful and necessary since philosophy cannot be legislated, but religion can promote political unity.

Alwishah and Hayes are to be commended for this much-needed survey of the Arabic reception of Aristotle. While many similar works exist on the reception of Aristotle within the Greek or Latin traditions or on a particular Aristotelian work within the Arabic world, few volumes attempt to treat the breadth of the corpus and give full attention to the variant readings brought about by translation, Neoplatonic influences, or religious sensibilities. Nevertheless, there are some lapses in coverage. The volume's organization around an Aristotelian curriculum allows for the omission of pseudo-Aristotelian works. Although this decision keeps the volume within the bounds of Aristotle's authorship, it compromises the goal of describing the reception of Aristotle's corpus as Arabic scholars understood it. The problem of this omission is highlighted by D'Ancona's relatively lengthy discussion (20-23) of the translation of pseudo-Aristotelian works, which are as much if not more influential and lasting than some works that are treated in detail in the volume. Also, some treatments of the corpus are less fulsome than others, particularly metaphysics and physics. Both Lettinck (106) and Normore (178 n. 3, 181-199) express some regret at the limitations of space, which requires them to select only few topics within the tradition to discuss and to gloss where they would be thorough. Whether these choices reflect the enormity of the task or editorial constraints, they do not diminish the quality of what is there. Indeed, scholars of Aristotle and Arabic philosophy should rejoice that Alwishah and Hayes have created an essential compendium that encourages further study of the diversity within the Arabic reception and adaptation of Peripatetic philosophy.

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